Mules in the ‘English World’: Cultural Rejection versus Practical Utility

William G. Clarence-Smith, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London


                         Fig. 1 ‘Juancito’ in the Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Mules were arguably the cyborgs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Mammals that could not reproduce themselves, they were entirely dependent on humans artificially mating male donkeys (jacks) with female horses (mares). A more unusual cross, with the same genetic inheritance and often called a mule, was a hinny, the product of a male horse (stallion) and a female donkey (jenny).
The great advantage of these hybrids was ‘hybrid vigour’, a biological phenomenon that made mules stronger, longer-lived, less prone to disease, more resistant to bad treatment, cheaper to feed, and more sure-footed than horses. Mules were particularly well adapted to steep and stony terrain, and to hot countries, although the example of ‘Juancito’, (Fig. 1), shows that they could also be employed in cold and sandy regions.

Fig. 2 Mules in the world c. 1910 (© William G. Clarence-Smith)
Mules might have been expected to flourish in the ‘English world,’ which prided itself on being on the cutting edge of progress in the modern era, but such was not the case. The map to the left shows the approximate global distribution of mules shortly before World War I. England and its immense empire lay very much on the fringes of the mule world. England itself, together with its Celtic dependencies and Canada, were often portrayed as being too cold and wet for mules, although, in reality, mules did flourish in selected locations, such as Cornwall, Ireland, and British Columbia. More puzzling is how few mules were to be found in England’s tropical and semi-tropical colonies and dominions.

The most perplexing case was that of Australia, which was especially well suited to breeding mules, in terms of a suitable climate, abundant land, and a lack of predators and disease. The continent did become self-sufficient in mules from about the 1870s, but Australians chose to use horses to grow sugar-cane in Queensland, an activity for which mules were almost always selected elsewhere in the world. Moreover, although Australian ‘Walers’ dominated the lucrative horse markets of the Indian Ocean and the China Sea by around 1900, the dominion exported very few mules. One exception was exports of mules to the sugar plantations of Fiji, as in the photo to the right.
Fig. 3 South Australian mules for shipment to Fiji, circa 1918

There were other concentrations of agricultural and transport mules in England’s warmer colonies, typically in regions where non-English culture was strong, whether French, Spanish or Dutch. The Caribbean (especially Jamaica and Trinidad), Mauritius, and parts of South Africa were noted for their mules. In the latter case, mules were also employed to some extent in mining operations. In part, mules were preferred because they were reputed to be more resistant than horses to the dreaded viral disease known as African Horse Sickness, and Arnold Theiler’s new remedy worked better for mules than for horses in combating this disease from around 1905. Zebras were even more resistant, hence attempts to domesticate them, and to hybridize them with both horses and donkeys.
Fig. 4 South African mule and zebra coach team 1895

Fig. 5 Mule for mountain battery, US Army 1916
Mules further proved to be vital in the defence of India’s troublesome Northwest Frontier. By dismantling ‘screw guns’ into half a dozen pieces, carried on the backs of as many mules, as above, the English developed mountain batteries into a highly effective military technique from the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, Frederick Roberts (later Earl Roberts), who enlisted in the army in India in 1854 and climbed steadily through the ranks, mounted a long and ultimately successful campaign to standardize the baggage train around the rapid and flexible pack mule, on American lines. Those with military experience in India in turn became some of the strongest advocates of the mule in the ‘English world’, though they were unable to overcome prejudices against the creature. Indeed, even within India itself, mule breeding remained limited to Muslims, despite a vigorous administrative campaign, because Hindus and Jains refused to mate the noble horse with the donkey, associated with some of the lowliest castes and outcastes.

Fig. 6 Cardinal Wolsey’s mule, Leicester Abbey 1530
The historical roots of English prejudices against mules apparently lay in the rejection of the Roman Catholic faith. The English associated mules with Papists, and especially with clerics, from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, as shown by this Victorian depiction of Cardinal Wolsey arriving at Leicester Abbey to die in 1530. The Pope himself, and all ordained Catholics, were forbidden to employ horses for saddle or draught, and therefore generally had no choice but to use mules instead. Mules were more generally prominent in the lands of England’s Catholic foes, France and Spain.

Fig. 7 A laden donkey (and a mule or hinny pulling a cart) on a postcard of an Irish village
The Irish increasingly adopted donkeys, mules and hinnies from around 1700, although the reasons for this remain unclear. It has been argued that excessive demand for Irish horses, to serve in England’s never-ending wars, pushed up prices and made alternatives to horses attractive, especially for small farmers. In any event, these developments not only strengthened an association of Catholicism with mules and donkeys, but also one of poverty and resistance to English authority.


Fig. 8 Illustration for sheet music, depicting a costermonger with his donkey, 1889.

Within England itself, the poor were the main employers of donkeys, and, to a lesser extent, mules. Typically linked to these despised animals were poor farmers on small plots; Roma (‘Gipsy’) travellers, who traded in animals; hawkers and peddlers, often Jewish, who employed both pack and draught animals; ‘pearly kings and queens’ of London’s East End; and costermongers, moving their vegetables and other wares in small carts.

The illustration to the left shows a costermonger introducing a donkey into his family home, although this was probably an exercise in poetic (or musical) licence.

Fig. 9 Advertising George Washington’s jacks for mule breeding, 1787

Linking mules with rebellion against the Crown also emerged from the enthusiastic encouragement of mules by the founding fathers of the breakaway nation of the United States. In particular, although George Washington may have been known inaccurately as ‘America’s first mule breeder,’ he certainly fostered the activity on his own Mount Vernon estate, as shown by the 1787 advertisement above, and more widely in the new nation. Within a few decades, the American rebels, bumptious and crude in the opinion of many English people, had taken their place among the greatest employers and breeders of mules in the world.


Finally, mules were dismissed as contrary to nature, and as ‘polluting’ mares. The portrayal of mules as ‘horrendous monsters’ was common in English publications, and was replicated in the Australian press. Moreover, it was believed that a mare that had been mated to a jack would have donkey-like offspring when later mated with a stallion. This theory, known as telegony and stretching back to Aristotle, was popularised by the famous case of Lord Morton’s mare, taken up by none other than Charles Darwin. In 1821, the sixteenth Earl of Morton reported to the Royal Society that one of his mares, previously mated with a male quagga (see right; now extinct), had produced a horse foal with stripes when subsequently mated with a white stallion. It was not till the end of the nineteenth century that scientific experiments proved that telegony had no basis in fact, and the idea lingered on long after this scientific demonstration.
Fig. 10 Quagga stallion, early nineteenth century, painted by Jacques-Laurent Agasse

England thus found herself needing mules at home and in the empire, sometimes for major military engagements, and yet frustratingly dependent on foreign breeders. The gauchos of the Río de la Plata, whether in Uruguay or, increasingly, Argentina, supplied mules to England’s possessions in the Caribbean and around the Indian Ocean, even briefly exporting mules to distant Australia in the 1850s and 60s.
In times of national crisis, such as the Boer War of 1899-1902, England turned to North America for supplies of large expensive mules for military operations (see below). Voices were occasionally raised, questioning this unnecessary dependence on foreigners, but cultural objections to mules acted as a brake on the expansion of breeding in the English world.

               Fig. 11 American mules awaiting shipment in the 1890s


Image 1: Savory, Theodore H. (1979) The mule, a historic hybrid, Shildon: Meadowfield Press.

Image 2: Tegetmeier, W. B., and Sutherland, C. L. (1895) Horses, asses, zebras, mules, and mule breeding, London: Horace Cox.

Image 3: Advertiser, The (1905) ‘Mule-breeding, a neglected industry,’ Adelaide, 8 September.

Image 4: Wallace, Robert (1896) Farming Industries of Cape Colony, London: King.

Image 5: MacFetridge, C. H. T., and Warren, J. P., eds. (1973) Tales of the mountain gunners, Edinburgh: William Blackwood.

Image 6: Dent, Anthony A. (1972) Donkey: the story of the ass, from east to west, London: George G. Harrap.

Image 7: Swinfen, Averil (2004) The Irish donkey, Dublin: The Lilliput Press. (3d ed.)

Images 8-9: Dent, Anthony A. (1972) Donkey: the story of the ass, from east to west, London: George G. Harrap.

Image 10: Ellenberg, George B. (2007) Mule South to tractor South: mules, machines, and the transformation of the cotton South, Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Image 11: Swart, Sandra (2010) Riding high: horses, humans, and history in South Africa, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Image 12: Tylden, G. (1980) Horses and saddlery: an account of the animals used by the British and Commonwealth armies from the seventeenth century to the present day, with a description of their equipment, London: J. A. Allen & Co. (reprint of 1965 ed.).

WC-S-PuntCambridge-2011Professor William Gervase Clarence-Smith, “Mules in the ‘English World’: Cultural Rejection versus Practical Utility”

William Gervase Clarence-Smith is Professor of the Economic History of Asia and Africa at SOAS, University of London, and chief editor of the Journal of Global History (London School of Economics and Political Science, and Cambridge University Press). He has published on the history of horses, mules, donkeys, camels, elephants, and bovids around the Indian Ocean and beyond, as traded commodities, sources of physical and symbolic power, origins of food and raw materials, and bearers of disease. He is currently undertaking research for a global history of mules since circa 1400.

If you’d like to learn more:

Travis, Lorraine (1990) The mule, London: J. A. Allen.

Riley, Harvey (1867) The mule: a treatise on the breeding, training and uses to which he may be put, Washington: Dick and Fitzgerald.

Essin, Emmett M. (2000) Shavetails and bell sharps: the history of the United States army mule, Lincoln (NE): Bison Books. (3d ed.)

Stamm, Mike (c2003) The mule alternative: the saddle mule in the American West, testimony from explorers, mountain men, traders, soldiers and gold rushers of the nineteenth century, Battle Mountain: Medicine Wolf Press. (2nd ed.

Fielding, Denis, and Krause, Patrick (1998) Donkeys, London: Macmillan Education.



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